I gazed out from the ferry, my eyes growing big as we neared the island. It shone like an emerald in the morning sunlight, green trees waving to me in greeting. I could not help but smile. What a wonderful way to spend our vacation—my first time seeing the ocean and we were going to be right in the middle of it!
The ferry docked and my family and I disembarked, all four of us dressed in pastels and dragging bulging suitcases. From the moment I stepped onto the pier I was captivated by the regal splendor of the island. The beaches were carpeted with sand white as sugar and the ocean swelled in a blue rhythm. Clouds began to gather above the water, blocking out the sun every so often. It all seemed so wonderful to me.
My family checked into the hotel and dropped off our luggage. The hotel was luxurious, with soft mattresses and royal crimson and gold decorating our rooms. My brother was completely enthralled by the satellite TV, but my favorite part of the room was the floor-to-ceiling window along the west wall. It overlooked the ocean and it thrilled me to think that I could watch the tides come in and go out. I stood by the window, watching the swells rise and sink, finally gaining enough momentum to rise high enough to touch the cloud-heavy sky and then cave in on themselves in a chaos of foam and saltwater. I was hypnotized by it, and as the cold blue caressed the white sand, it seemed to me that the ocean was breathing. In fact, I fancied I saw a figure in the waves as they collapsed into the surf, a figure dancing and moving to the ocean's pulse . . .
I jumped at my mom's call and turned to look at her. The entire family was clustered around the door.
"Well, are you coming with us for the tour or what?"
"Yeah—I'm coming!" I said, jumping up to join them.
My mother shook her head as we left the room, muttering, "I swear— sometimes you just get lost in your own head."
* * *
"This—as you can all see, I'm sure—is the ocean:"
The guide swept his hand across the horizon. We all nodded and smiled, adjusting our hats and sunglasses. My family was just a small part of a group of tourists standing on the pier, who came to see the famous Dancer Island. The air was filled with clicks and flashes of light as people took pictures of the setting sun. Not that it was easy to see the sun, with all the clouds.
"Now," said the tour guide, a man named Eddie in his early twenties, "does anyone know why this island is called Dancer Island?"
Everyone shook their heads. My brother, recognizing the beginning of a story, groaned, but I leaned against the railing to get more comfortable. I loved stories and this sounded like an especially good one.
"Hundreds of years ago there lived a woman here who danced to the ocean. It's said that she could change the ocean's mood—could tame it into a gentle babe or stir it up into a frenzy. She was called the Storm Dancer."
The Storm Dancer, I thought, visions of a beautiful woman dancing to the ocean, auburn hair caught up by the wind and eyes blue as the ocean playing through my mind. What a mysterious and exciting name!
"The villagers living here at that time, though, were pretty superstitious. They called her a witch and sentenced her to death. Burned her at the stake."
The crowd around me gasped. What a terrible thing to do to a person! And all because of a little superstition!
Eddie straightened his hat and continued.
"That's not all. After her death, this island had the worst hurricane it's ever seen. Wiped out the entire population. Weren't any people living here until about fifty years later, when someone came off the mainland to start a tourist spot here. And even after that, people say they've seen her dancing on the beach when there's a storm—dancing to the beat of the ocean."
I was spellbound. I wondered if perhaps the dancer saw the ocean the way I did. I wondered if she felt its breathing and the swells seeming to rise and fall to the beat of her own heart just as I did . . .
"Well, folks, you should be getting back to your hotels now—the weather changes fast around here. Looks like rain," said Eddie and as he spoke a drop of rain fell. A light drizzle started, growing heavier with every second.
"Come on!" I heard my father yell. "Let's get back to the hotel—fast!"
I nodded and began to walk toward the town, but it was raining much harder now. I couldn't see anything in the rain—it was coming down in sheets. I felt for the railing, thinking it would lead me back to the town. The wood was slick and I had to inch my way along. Damp and cold, dripping wet, I found the end of the boardwalk. I took a step forward and slipped, tumbling down in the storm and rain.
I landed in something gritty and soft. I opened my eyes and found somehow I had ended up on the beach. I sat up and found myself staring at the ocean—a raging, screaming ocean that lashed out at me. Its rhythm was no longer slow and steady but angry and unpredictable. Waves rose fierce and black, crashing down in a brawl with the wet sand. The spray hit me full in the face, and I gasped at the overwhelming saltwater.
I cried out and pulled away from the water, trying to crawl away from it. But it followed me, shoving me underneath with damp fury and wrapping me in a chilling embrace. It dragged me further into the clashing elements. I screamed, sobbing with fear, unable to see anything or crawl to safety.
And then in the middle of all the confusion, feet embedded in white sand, skirt whipping about her ankles and auburn hair tossed by the wind, was a woman. She fixed her cool gray-blue eyes on me. I gasped.
She looked away from me and turned to the ocean. She began to sway to a beat and then to dance. She danced like nothing I'd ever seen before, body moving, hips swaying, head held high, mouth whispering verses I could not hear. Her dance was fast, frenzied, to the breathing of the ocean. She danced closer and closer to me, the screaming waves not frightening her or interfering with her dance at all.
Finally, she stopped before me and held out her hand, staring at me with those unnerving eyes. Wordlessly, I took her hand and she pulled me to my feet. Then she began to dance again, swaying to the waves and fury of the water. I closed my eyes, feeling the frantic tempo in my blood rushing through me and I put my hands up and danced.
I was a part of the ocean, a part of its heartbeat, moving to its rhythm. The saltwater did not bother me anymore—the shifting sand beneath my feet no longer a hindrance.
The Storm Dancer and I danced together for what seemed centuries until the ocean began to slow, falling back into its usual regularity. And as it slowed, so did we, until we swayed and stepped one last time and stopped. I looked out at the ocean, the swells friendly and gentle again, the clouds beginning to disappear.
I turned to the Storm Dancer. She didn't smile, but she nodded in approval.
The call of my name made me look up. My mother was standing on the boardwalk, looking down at me. Her eyes were wide with worry and she raced down the steps to get to me.
I turned to the Storm Dancer. She smiled, holding a finger to her lips. Her eyes sparkled like the sun reflecting off her beloved ocean as she turned and walked into the waves, her footsteps not disturbing the water. A wall of saltwater rose before her and closed around her. When it settled, she was gone.
"Shelia! Oh, Shelia!"
My mother rushed to me, holding my soaked body close to her.
"Oh, Shelia, poor baby—what are you doing here? We've been looking for you all night!"
"I got lost," I said, watching the ocean swell and collapse, swell and collapse.
"Let's get you back to the hotel," my mother said, pulling me toward the steps. "Everyone will be so glad you've been found."
As we climbed the steps, I chanced a look back at the ocean. In the falling waves, the cold blue shimmering in the emerging sunlight, I fancied I saw a figure in the water, eyes closed, dancing and moving to the rhythm of the ocean.